Today is battle of the Atlantic Sunday … it is when we remember the longest and, arguably the most decisive battle of the Second World War. It began with the sinking of the SS Athenia on 3 Sep 39 …
… and didn’t end until 7 May 1945 when the SS Avondale Park was sunk, of the East coast of Scotland, by one of the German U Boats that had not received orders (sent on 4 May 45, four days before the formal German surrender) to surrender …
… in between, the Battle of the Atlantic, the only battle Churchill said he was ever afraid to lose, raged from the Saint Lawrence River all the way to Scotland and Gibraltar and, indeed, as far South as Uruguay.
Canada and Canadians were key combatants … in the spring of 1939, months before war was declared the Admiralty began to order corvettes, small, slow warships, that could be built in the many small shipyards in the UK and Canada that could not manage a real, major warship. The corvettes, small, simple and cheap to build, only lightly armed, easy to operate but awful to serve in, and the U-boats and long-range aircraft and, above all, hastily-built merchantmen, freighters and tankers, mostly, were the main combatants. The corvettes were improved over the years and then, beginning in 1940, a new class of ship, originally called “twin screw corvettes” (because they had two propellor shafts as against the corvette’s one) but renamed, in 1941, frigates were ordered. Many of both types of ships were built in Canada.
The U-boats were attacking the merchantmen, the whole purpose of the submarine campaign was to deprive Britain of the food, fuel and ammunition it needed to fight. The corvettes and frigates (plus a few destroyers and aircraft carriers) were escorting convoys of merchantmen; convoys had been used since ancient times and had been standard for the Spanish in the 16th century to protect the treasure fleets bringing gold and silver from the Americas from English privateers. The need for convoys became evident to come, officers, including Canadians, as a result of experience against U-boats in the First World War. Many types of aircraft including Catalina flying boats and Halifax and Lancaster bombers …
… were the scourge of the German U-boat flotillas … the Battle of the Atlantic was true joint operation.
The key commanders were Großadmiral Karl Dönitz of Germany, Admirals Sir Max Horton and Sir Percy Noble of the United Kingdom and Rear Admiral Leonard W Murray of Canada … the latter was the only Canadian to ever hold a supreme (theatre) command in a major war.
The Royal Canadian lost more than 30 ships and over 2,000 sailors in the Second World War, most in the Atlantic. The Royal Canadian Air Forces lost over 750 members. They did not die in vain; the battle was, indeed, decisive; Britain could have been starved into surrender and the implications of that would have been staggering.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Edited to add: I hope I will see some readers at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Sunday, 5 May 19, at 10:30 AM for the Battle of the Atlantic memorial service.